UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Security Council demanded on Thursday that all steps be taken to prevent a repeat of a recent mass rape in Congo as council members voiced open dissatisfaction at the late response of U.N. forces.
U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have said they were only informed of the incident more than a week after it happened, even though they had a base just 20 miles from the scene in the country’s violent east.
That led council members to suggest, at an unscheduled meeting called by the United States and France, that the 20,000-strong MONUSCO peacekeeping force needed at least to improve its communications with the local population.
Rebels from the Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu FDLR occupied the town of Luvungi in North Kivu province from July 30 to August 3, raping and assaulting at least 154 civilians, according to U.N. figures. One aid group has said many women were gang-raped by between two and six armed men.
The attack has stung the United Nations, whose peacekeeping force in Congo is its largest anywhere. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made protecting civilians and combating sexual violence central themes of his stewardship of the world body.
A Security Council statement “demanded that all possible steps should be taken to prevent such outrages in the future” and called on Congo to bring the culprits to justice.
It welcomed Ban’s dispatch of a senior aide, deputy peacekeeping chief Atul Khare, to Congo, but made clear it expected to hear “what more could be done to ensure more effective protection of civilians.”
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, this month’s council president, said that when Khare returned to New York on September 8 the 15-nation body wanted “a very serious, sober evaluation ... of what happened and why.”
U.N. officials have said they only heard from aid group International Medical Corps on August 12 of the rapes and then sent protection and fact-finding teams. They have blamed a roadblock by rebels for their failure to find out sooner.
Roger Meece, the recently appointed head of MONUSCO, told reporters by video-link from Congo on Wednesday that the force had learned on July 31 of rebel movements in the area. MONUSCO patrols had passed through Luvungi on August 2 -- while the rebels were still there -- and again on August 9, but on neither occasion did the villagers mention mass rapes, he said.
The New York Times, however, on Thursday quoted the IMC as saying it first notified U.N. workers on August 6 of the rapes.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said his Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs “was informed by IMC locally ... that there had been some kind of incident in that area. I don’t know whether it was the sixth of August.”
“We were aware, not while it was happening, certainly, but at some point after that, and obviously we were very concerned and started to express our concern about it at that stage,” he told a news conference.
Meece said MONUSCO was considering setting up a system of daily communications between villages and the U.N. base, but one problem was that cell phones did not work in many areas.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters that in Thursday’s debate she raised ways of improving communications, suggesting radios and satellite phones could be used, though she said she did not know how feasible they were.
In Kinshasa, Congo Information Minister Lambert Mende said his government was “very determined to combat and eradicate all sexual violence,” but denied Congo was “the world capital of rape.”
Editing by Xavier Briand